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General Functions

( Originally Published 1899 )

WE have now become somewhat acquainted with each of the senses, its specific nature, its particular office or function, its value in an intellectual, aesthetic, and practical way, the diseases to which it is subject, the tests which may be applied in discovering defects, and some of the methods to be used in correcting them. We have also discovered the importance of all this information in the education of the child. It remains for us to inquire into the general functions of the senses, and to find their further relation to his physical and mental life.

Whatever may be our theories regarding the. exact nature of the mental power with which the child is endowed at birth, all agree that without some means of receiving communication from the material world outside the mind must lie dormant, no development resulting. The senses furnish this means of communication. Though we are ignorant of the nature of the connection between the nerve cells of the brain and the mind, of the way in which certain kinds of nerve excitation are unerringly given practically the same meaning by one and all minds, we are not without some definite knowledge of the way in which these external objects awaken brain activity. Each nerve filament has direct communication with the brain, so that we may regard the nervous organ-ism as a great telegraphic or telephonic system, with the brain as the receiving or central station. If a nerve filament capable of appreciating heat motion is excited by a warm body in contact, by concussion, by friction, or by chemical action, the excitation is carried on its own nerve line to the brain, and there entering consciousness is interpreted as heat. In no other way can a child get knowledge of temperature. If a terminal filament capable of appreciating pressure be excited by some body coming against it, that peculiar kind of nerve excitement is also carried to the brain by its connecting line. In that way only can a child get knowledge of the presence of an external body and of the nature of its surface. In a similar way stimuli act, each in its own way, upon the various sensory nerve filaments, producing specific kinds of nerve excitation, thus making the child acquainted with the characteristics of the world of external objects. The fidelity with which this transmission is made determines, in great part, the extent and accuracy of the child's knowledge. If this delicate machinery is not in perfect order, not working with precision, confusion naturally results.

As you are observing the children, you will see how rapidly they grow in power to distinguish objects and to note their qualities. The more frequently a sense is excited within certain bounds, and with slightly varying stimuli, the more sensitive it becomes and the finer the distinctions it presents to the mind. The physical senses as the media of communication between the mind and the external world serve their full purpose only as they are gaining in ability to appropriate and transmit an increasing number of shades of differences in color, in tone, in form, in intensity. The mind can proceed no faster in gaining power to make such discrimination than the senses, hence the need for the intelligent selection of means and methods that their progress may be as rapid and as economical as possible; hence also the reminder that every- educational scheme which is not based upon sense-perception must fail.

At that point where the self and the not self meet,the mind must respond,or nothing but brain activity results. The clock may strike a thousand times, objects may pass many times back and forth before the eyes, the fragrance of flowers fill every corner of the room, but unless the mind gives special attention no sensations proper are aroused, and one sits oblivious to it all. These excitations do enter in a slight way into consciousness, how-ever, making up a sort of substratum a sensation continuum, as Dr. Dewey and others call it which affects more or less the general tone of the self, no matter in what it happens to be absorbed at the time. Any one of them may be quickly exalted into consciousness and made the special object of attention, while the others are left still involved in the subconscious mass. This may be illustrated at any time by suddenly stopping whatever you may be doing and noting, one after an-other, the many things which you were really seeing and hearing and feeling and even tasting and smelling, and yet of which you were not at all conscious. This experiment will enable you to see clearly that unless the mind specifically differentiates a sensation from its companions and interprets it, gives it meaning, and associates it with the object producing it, there can be no knowledge gained. The sensation itself is not knowledge, but without it there could be no knowledge. It is pure feeling, and becomes knowledge only as it is given meaning. Active as a physical force speeding its way to the brain, it can do nothing now but passively wait at the portal for the mind to take hold of it and give it meaning. Its various characteristics, due to its sources, soon become familiar to the mind, and sensation and object seem merged in one.

Sensations occupy a more prominent part in the life of the child than of the adult, for they are practically his only mental food. What a man would discover about an object by reflection and reason, the child finds out only through the senses. He must pull it, bite it, stamp on it, look down its mouth, smell it, scratch it, throw it about, no matter whether it be a kitten or a brownie. He tears the choicest rose to pieces, because that is the only way he can find out what is inside. He pounds away on a drum or an old tin pan, because it affords him pleasing entertainment, and in that way he learns something about it. His mind feeds on sensations just as the body feeds on bread and meat. He is naturally as hungry for them as lie is for his meals. To deny them to him is to do him as much harm as to deny him food. As we take pains in supplying the latter, the former should with equal intelligence and with equal liberality be provided for him. By this it should not be understood that he is to be permitted to destroy everything that he can get his hands on though there ought to be many things given him for that purpose if he so inclines but that objects in variety, particularly from the outside world, should always be at his disposal, always be coming into his little world. Many children would do less damage to the furniture if this propensity could only be given indulgence by allowing them to tear some worthless things to bits once in a while. It needs direction, not suppressionódirection not in a specific way in these early years, but in a general way. There are thousands of things with which he may become familiar by such management, and that too without realizing that he is making any special effort to learn. This informal education in these years is just as important as the formal education of the schoolroom which he is soon to enter.

The sensations thus constantly crowding in upon the child will, however, give him little valuable knowledge unless he be wisely, though in-formally, guided in getting the meaning out of them. He must be helped to understand them. With very little aid he will make great progress himself. Each discovery of a new power or activity in himself will give him entertainment for a whole day. He may make mistakes without number, but care will sooner or later bring him around to correct most of them himself. There is no need for worry that he is losing a multitude of opportunities to learn things. A thousand acorns are destroyed where one grows into a tree, and ten thousand flowers bloom where one produces fruit. The wise child is that one who knows everything he sees; not the one who can tell all the stories he has had read to him.

Furnishing, then, as the senses do, the materials which are to be worked up into knowledge, everything said in the preceding chapters concerning their relation to the mind and concerning the importance of keeping them in vigorous, healthy condition ought to be growing more clear. It is important that weakness or latency or disease in any sense organ receive special attention as already suggested, but in our zeal we must not forget that the normal children may be going wrong through our neglect. In her efforts to encourage a delicate appetite in one child, a mother may allow another to become the slave of an artificial or uncontrolled appetite. In shielding one from excessive use of his eyes, she may overlook the fact that another is losing his eyesight in reading fine print or in trying to write fine copies for his teacher in penmanship. If boys and girls with perfect senses are making no greater progress in sense-perception than their less fortunate mates, somebody is at fault. They ought to be advancing more rapidly in making nice distinctions and accurate observations than their defective classmates.

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